OMAHA, Neb. (CNS) — They had never met before, but they were far from being strangers.
So seminarian Andrew Natali smiled broadly when he spotted Mary Dulac and her 6-month-old son, Louis, in a Creighton University ballroom in Omaha.
And the two adults hugged and quickly began chatting as the seminarian from the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, for the first time met the woman from St. Peter Parish in Omaha who had been praying for him as a “spiritual mom” during his studies at the Institute for Priestly Formation’s summer program at Creighton.
Taking chairs at the recent Friends Night gathering of about 500 seminarians and supporters, Dulac balanced Louis on her lap, showed Natali a family photo and told him her husband and nine children also prayed for him.
“That was such a grace and a joy to hear,” Natali said.
For 10 weeks, spiritual moms from across the Omaha Archdiocese and around the country — a sort of spiritual family — prayed at least one Hail Mary each day for the nearly 170 seminarians from around the United States attending the institute’s summer program.
The 10 weeks are designed to help diocesan seminarians build a deeper relationship with God through prayer, spiritual direction, classes on spirituality, sexuality and other topics, an eight-day silent retreat, and service, including ministry to the ill, elderly and disabled.
Spiritual moms in the Omaha area are assigned one seminarian — this year the women were given a photo as well — while the seminarians are given only their “mom’s” first name. They are encouraged not to meet, as a way to avoid distracting the men during their studies.
At the same time, other women from around the country pray for all of the seminarians, including women from Pennsylvania who this year watched the July 23 Friends Night online.
More than 300 spiritual moms this year provided a “dome of grace” around the men through prayer, said Linda Antonelli, executive assistant for the Institute for Priestly Formation, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Beyond the 10 weeks, there is no commitment for the women. But many continue to pray for and stay in touch with their seminarians, Antonelli said.
“It’s all a movement of the Holy Spirit,” she told the Catholic Voice, Omaha’s archdiocesan newspaper.
Spiritual moms began in 2008, inspired by 14 women associated with institute who wanted to respond to then-Pope Benedict XVI’s call for spiritual mothers for all priests and seminarians.
Spiritual dads were added the next year, daily saying a prayer to St. Joseph for the program’s faculty and spiritual directors, whom they also meet for the first time at Friends Night. Local dads also attend one of the Holy Hours held each Wednesday during the summer program.
This year, 50 men from five states served as spiritual dads, a record number, said Larry Dwyer, a member of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Omaha who helped organize the initiative and is a member of the institute’s Mission Advisory Council.
Friends Night begins with eucharistic adoration at St. John’s Church on Creighton’s campus. It continues in the nearby student center ballroom with hugs, smiles and laughter as seminarians and spiritual moms visit and enjoy a program of priests and seminarians talking about their institute experiences — and the impact the women’s prayers had on their summer.
At their table, Natali and Dulac talked about his family, background and what he experienced at the Institute for Priestly Formation.
“It is a joy to see the face of the person I have been praying for,” Dulac said.
And for many women, including Dulac and Colleen McNamara, being a spiritual mom has been an annual call — for McNamara since the program began and for Dulac within the first two years of its founding. They say the graces they receive far outweigh what they offer.
A member of Christ the King Parish in Omaha, McNamara said she has been blessed to have many seminarians among those praying for her in her fight against cancer.
Being a spiritual mom also has brought discipline and consistency to her prayer life, she said.
“It’s a joy to be part of the process,” McNamara said.
And a special joy occurred this year as McNamara happened to meet her spiritual son, Martin Nguyen, 24, of the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, during a seminarian tour of Boys Town. They talked, but following institute rules she did not tell Nguyen she was his spiritual mom, setting up a joyous reunion at Friends Night.
“It was a very touching moment,” Nguyen said.
To learn more or register for spiritual moms at http://priestlyformation.org, email IPFMoms@gmail.com, call Anne at (402) 391-2177 or Linda at (402) 280-3901. For spiritual dads, call Larry at (402) 333-7704 or Linda at (402) 280-3901.
Gouger is senior writer at the Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Omaha.